My friend Noah is a filmmaker and he occasionally consults me whenever he is short of ideas for a film. Although I can usually pull stories out of the air, I am never able to offer Noah anything other than sympathy. The prospect of filmmaking will make any storyteller feel both personally relieved and somewhat inadequate. They will realise that they have delegated all of their own filmmaking to their readers.
When I write the word “Noah,” you will unconsciously cast the actor. The faintest of images will appear in your head of a Jewish-looking man, with black hair and creamy dark skin. When I write that he “occasionally consults me,” your mind may shoot a fleeting clip of two men seated in a café or a pub. The filmmaker, on the other hand, cannot avoid all of the inconvenience of casting real actors and assembling an appearance of his story in the real world. His actors will make the story their own; on location, he will have to make do with any props and setting he can. Murdered by a thousand compromises, his original vision will be frittered away like a dream in the morning light.
One of Noah’s projects for a documentary film concerned a derelict church in the north of Edinburgh, at the end of a street which few people ever have reason to go down. Unbeknown to whoever or whatever presently owns this church, a colony of homeless people had erected a circle of tents in the apse, around a small spitting fire. These squatters were led by two former servicemen who had shed several critical layers of their psyches in the Iraqi desert, and a Buddhist monk whose only possession in the world was a striped dressing gown. There was methadone and some prostitutes who may have been older than the church itself and a friendly cat to cheer everybody up. Noah proposed that we spend a weekend filming the life of the camp and collecting the stories of the campers.
Noah had only ever heard about this colony and he wanted to film it with fresh eyes. He was wary of his prejudices, or of deciding upon the wrong cliché and presenting the campers as loveable eccentrics when they were embittered failures. We agreed that I would scout ahead to sound out the campers and see if we could come to the necessary rapport.
I set off to hunt down the church. Amidst the Georgian squares and terraces of the New Town, it waits in a sort of jungle clearing. It is squarely 3D – not one of these churches which is merely another façade, jammed between a Tesco and a Victoria Wine. The spire looked vaguely like a fungus – a blackened, shapeless growth which had sprouted out of the mulch of the church. If you walked up to the building and gave it a good kick, you would probably disappear within a vast cloud of spores.
I spent about a quarter of an hour circling the church and soaking up its character. Like a parish church planted in a lonely graveyard, it had cloaked itself in a twinkling sense of mystery. The stillness around the church was slightly too clear and even faintly awesome. Perhaps the church was preserving itself in this precious atmosphere. This church commanded silence; your mind stopped ringing like a bell and you were left aware of yourself marooned in this place, having slipped imperceptibly out of time.
I bowed my head and set to work. The huge front entrance was now confined behind railings, and the only means of access were the side doors. I eventually decided upon one which looked particularly interesting, and when picking the lock, the pins were as smooth as piano keys. I pressed through this door and down into a series of cellars – lonely dusty rooms which seemed to bark with silence – before emerging like a daring rodent into the grimy daylight of the church.
The eye wandered over bare flooring without any interruption. The church’s interior was a shell: the pews had been dismantled; the altar was a battered old trunk; and there had been no stained glass to begin with. I could not find the organ – perhaps, like a gigantic spider, it had hoisted itself up on thin legs and scuttled up across the ceiling into some dismal corner.
There were three bodies laid out on the floor of the apse. An old man with a long white beard as thick as a gravestone was spread-eagled on his back. From where I was standing, I could not catch the expression on his face. He was dressed in a purple fleece and jeans. A man about half his age had been placed at his left hand side, like one of the bandits who were crucified alongside Christ. He lay as if in the recovery position; his eyes were closed like those of a sleeper; but there was a frown somewhere in his face, perhaps in the slightly drooping mouth. The third in the circle – lying as if at the half past on a clock face – was a woman with a blonde ponytail, who also lay on her side. She was wrapped around something and I had to investigate this because I supposed that it might be a baby. It turned out to be a coat which she was cuddling as if it was her baby.
It was a miracle, I thought. Life had been whipped away from these bodies as smartly as a prankster removes a tablecloth from a table and leaves all of the crockery in place. I circled the bodies like a cautious hyena. They seemed dry and clean, but they had been here for a while. The colour had faded from their skin and it was now as white as bone. The bare arms of the younger man looked sausagelike, as if he could have only slopped them about heavily without any energy. I sniffed at the air, but there was only a faraway unwashed smell.
I hovered at the margins of this tableau, like somebody captivated by an art installation. It seemed that the bodies had died peacefully, although some months later I would finally discover the bullet wound in the bearded man’s forehead, as innocuous as a chip in a dinner plate. At the time, I fancied that in an extraordinary coincidence, these three friends had all died of heart attacks at exactly the same time and in the same place.
I looked down just as my phone rang. “There’s not a soul here Noah,” I reported glumly, lowering my voice as if it might disturb the corpses. “No tents either.”
Noah sighed. “Has somebody been winding me up?”
“I’m sorry Noah…”
“No I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have sent you off on a wild goose chase…”
“Oh don’t worry about it. It’s nice to stretch the legs.”
“No, next time I’ll check my facts. I’m sorry if you’ve gone to any trouble getting into the church.”
“You can buy me a pint,” I reassured him. I bade him a pleased adieu and hung up.
I continued to watch the corpses. It was strange to share in the intimacy of their deaths, since, being corpses, they were entirely impersonal. It was like masturbating with a stranger on the internet, joining with them in a moment of love even though they were nothing more than a picture. It was impossible to really comprehend what had been lost, and yet I could still sense the whisper of this loss, gaping like an invisible abyss at my feet.
For several days I luxuriated in the memory of these corpses, as if it was a scene from a haunting movie. If you had stopped me in the street between my work and the supermarket, or between the supermarket and my home, you would have found me brooding over these three people who had been forever extinguished like bust light bulbs.
I revisited my new friends a week later, once again slipping into the church unnoticed. I was irritated that there were no pews remaining from which to contemplate the corpses. I wandered about dissatisfied for a bit, before suddenly plumping myself down cross-legged within view of them. They had shrunken slightly; their clothes were now a little too big for them and their lines and wrinkles cut deeper into the skin. It was as if they had aged ten years rather than decomposed.
I did not drop in on the corpses again for another three months. I was finally at the end of a night partying in the Omni centre. We were all teeming together outside the entrance of an Australian-themed nightclub, to smoke a packet of menthol cigarettes between us and organise the taxis home. It was rather like coordinating a military exercise in which different battalions had to be sent off in the correct taxis. I had shaken away the offer of a taxi, opting to walk with a couple of wilting Malaysian girls who were heading towards the West end. One of the girls was asleep on her feet; the other had a phobia about vomiting and she was doing odd breathing exercises to settle her stomach. We separated outside the Standing Order, where I ducked in to have a shot of vodka, just to give my drunkenness back its sparkle.
I soon found myself back on the street which led to the ruined church. The corpses were waiting as usual, still undisturbed, although I noticed with distaste that the woman now had only a third of a hand. It must have been picked apart by mice. I retreated to watch the corpses from a distance – they were still oddly odourless. When I left the church I was completely sober.
A few weeks later, I was watching the sun set from Princes Street gardens and a vast melancholy was breaking over the city like the implications of an election, finding its reflection in every heart. People were roaming the streets in despair. Everybody felt empty and friendless or tired of their friends and lonely within their own lives. I returned to the church to fortify myself with the sight of the corpses. They were increasingly raggedy and unkempt – like tramps who have been sleeping in shop doors for too long.
One morning in late September my old friend Tori phoned me. She was trapped in the hairdressers – her new hairdo was a lot more complicated than she had anticipated. They were working on it in stages and it would not be ready until after midday.
All rather difficult for me to worry about, I pointed out.
But it transpired that Tori had left her eight year old niece, Fiona, in her apartment. By now Fiona would be frantic. Would I mind hastening to the rescue?
It sounded like good fun. It is nice to enjoy the company of children for a short period, without having to be the adult and act like a stranger to yourself, droning on about washing and bedtimes. I fancied that Fiona would be equally delighted with my company. Tori kept a spare key sellotaped to the underside of the outside doormat. Like most little girls, Fiona turned out to be a tiny fierce creature with pigtails. She was engrossed in the television and she appeared not to have noticed Tori’s absence.
If I had banked upon Fiona for entertainment, she turned out to be profoundly boring. All that she did was watch television.
I tolerated this for a while, before conceding that I actually felt deeply insulted. Fiona seemed to regard me as entirely unremarkable. I got up and yanked the television’s plug out of the wall.
Fiona was so comically incandescent that I could not help laughing in her face. “Well I’m sorry my dear, but if you watch any more television it will surely kill you. You have watched more of that contraption in a single day than I have in my entire life.”
Time seemed to have frozen whilst she berated me. I must turn the television back on and this same demand was shrieked over and over again. She was even boring when she was angry.
“You’ve been sitting inside too much. We need to burn off some of that energy. Let’s go for a walk.”
More outrage. It transpired that in Fiona’s universe, one only went for a walk if it had a destination, namely either the cinema or the shops. It was scandalous that one might simply go for a walk for no reason. Fiona was squeaking with ever greater volumes of fury, and daring herself to call me ever more drastic names. After “stupid,” “dumbo,” and “lame brain,” I finally silenced her with a growl.
“We’re going for a walk. You will do as you are told.”
There was a period of hopeless lacklustre weeping, but Fiona was eventually in her coat and boots. We set off in merciful silence. Fiona was ostensibly compliant, but I am sure that her brain was still scheming furiously. We walked past Haymarket station. “This is better than any television,” I suggested, but Fiona would not reply.
I do not know how we came to pass the old church, or how it began to pull us back down that lonely street to where it waited. “I have something to show you,” I remarked to Fiona, almost with trepidation. She eyed me warily but just nodded, resigned to her ordeal.
As we broke into the church, she merely trudged alongside me in a stupefied state. Perhaps her brain was only fully operational when the television was turned on. Like a conspiratorial grandfather who knows where there are speckled eggs hidden in the heath, I ushered her on towards the corpses. This time I was too interested in Fiona’s reaction to benefit from them myself. I showed her around the corpses and she nodded dutifully as I pointed out particular details. I made sure that she saw everything: the empty faces, the hands curled shut, the dried translucent skin, and the wear and tear caused by mice.
We were walking back to the city when Fiona suddenly burst into a long steady wail. Mildly surprised, I let her cry for a while, as if her despair was a leakage of fuel which it would be prudent to burn off.
“I did not think that you would get upset like this,” I admitted finally.
“Because they’re dead,” Fiona sobbed. “Because one day I will be dead and I don’t want to be dead. And mummy and daddy will be dead before me…”
“I’ll be dead too,” I said, trying to cheer her up.
“And when I am dead, I’ll be nothing. Just like them. We won’t be anything left. There’ll be nothing.”
“That’s true,” I acknowledged.
“I don’t want to die,” she was beginning to cry again.
“It’s true but unhelpful.”
“I don’t want to die!” Oh mummy I don’t want to die!”
“Listen,” I said. “I’m not afraid of death.”
Fiona discounted this on the grounds that I was “stupid.”
I was getting impatient again. “It’s good to be afraid of death. It teaches you how to be alive. Those poor devils in the church…”
“But if they could be alive again, they would not be sitting around watching television and complaining. They would know how valuable life is.”
I could not tell if Fiona was convinced by this. Back at the apartment, we found Tori looking refreshed but the same, and I was at a loss to tell how her new haircut differed from the one which had preceded it. Fiona begrudgingly agreed to keep quiet about our trip to the church. Perhaps she sensed that it did not seem wholly savoury.
I have not kept in touch with Fiona over recent years, although it has struck me that she was not morbidly affected by her visit to the church. She seems a breezy energetic child and she rarely has any trouble at school. On this question, however, Tori has lately accused me of providing a corrupting influence. Fiona and three of her friends had conspired to get tattoos, and Tori suspects that these underaged girls had appealed to me to be pointed in the direction of a suitable black market tattooist. I professed my ignorance of the affair, but I caught in passing a curious detail: Fiona’s own tattoo, which was snuggled away on the upper arm where children typically receive their vaccinations, was emblazoned with the maxim, Memento Vitae.